Louis Zamperini, a 1936 Olympian, World War II Japanese prisoner of war, and preacher of forgiveness to his torturers, died Wednesday from pneumonia. He was 97.
“After a 40-day long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives,” his family said through Universal Pictures. “His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days.”
Zamperini’s fighting spirit first gained attention when he channelled his boyhood rebellion onto the 1936 United States track and field team at age 19. His 56-second final lap won a request from Adolf Hitler for a personal audience at the Berlin games.
But then war came. An Army pilot, Zamperini and his crew were searching for a downed B-25 when their plane crashed into the Pacific, killing eight of the 11 men. He survived 47 days on a raft, drinking rainwater, eating birds, and singing hymns with his fellow survivors. The raft eventually landed Japan, where he spent two years in prison camps. He endured near constant torture, including 220 punches a beating. “I was too busy trying to stay alive to think about dying," Zamperini told WORLD in 2010. He said the theme of his life is the tenacity of the human spirit.
Author Laura Hillenbrand told Zamperini's story in her 2010 best-seller Unbroken, which will hit theaters in December in an Angelina Jolie–directed film by the same name. “It is a loss impossible to describe,” Jolie said. “We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him.”
The question remains, though, whether Jolie’s film will do justice to the man Zamperini became, not just the man he was. Suffering from nightmares and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress after he returned home, Zamperini turned to alcohol. The book’s post-war chapters showed how a reluctant 1949 encounter in Los Angeles with Billy Graham would change the legacy of the last 65 years of his life. He made thousands of promises to seek God during captivity but hadn't kept any. “Even before I got off my knees the miracle of transformation took place,” he told WORLD.
Zamperini returned to Japan in 1950 and spoke to 850 prisoners held for war crimes. About half of them received Christ. Eight of his own former guards, now prisoners themselves, came forward. Zamperini forgave his torturers, “hugging them in the process.”
Zamperini spoke in all 50 states and shared his story to tens of thousands in Japan. In 1998, he carried the torch for the Nagano Winter Olympics, telling his story to millions more on television. “My whole life is a ministry,” he told WORLD. “Let's face it. That is what we are here for. All we are, are voices for the gospel. I'll be here for as long as the Lord can use me.”
One of Zamperini's last public appearances came in May when the Pasadena Tournament of Roses named him Grand Marshal for the 2015 Rose Parade. “All of my colleague buddies are dead. All of my war buddies are dead,” Zamperini said. “It's sad to realize that all your friends are dead.” But the relationship he developed with Jolie helped make up for it. “She hugs me and kisses me, so I can't complain,” he said.
Zamperini contracted pneumonia about two weeks later. Wednesday, the man who lectured on “the freedom he has found through a personal relationship with God,” as parade organizers described him, became free indeed.